[Board] [OSGeo-Conf] Lessons Learned from FOSS4G Calgary 2020 and Recommendations for the future

Steven Feldman shfeldman at gmail.com
Thu Jun 18 02:47:38 PDT 2020


Jon thanks for a great summary of the questions that we need to address and for your recommendations which I largely agree with.

I would add a further question - given the challenges of accessibility, the financial risks and the environmental impact of running a >1,000 person global event should we re-evaluate our whole events programme as part of our strategy for community building, outreach and financially sustaining OSGeo? I covered some of this in my keynote yesterday at FOSS4GUK, my slides are here https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1VhViqXxRUQjMwc4ubVPrjE0dec31uwR12yVQBfVesc4/edit?usp=sharing <https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1VhViqXxRUQjMwc4ubVPrjE0dec31uwR12yVQBfVesc4/edit?usp=sharing> (you will need to read the speaker notes)

I would ask the board to consider Jon’s thoughts and recommendations and provide some guidance to CC as to how you want us to proceed
______
Steven

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> On 18 Jun 2020, at 05:05, Jonathan Neufeld <jneufeld at tecterra.com> wrote:
> 
> Hi CC, 
> 
> I saw the thread on updating the RfP docs ahead of the next large FOSS event, and I figured it was a good time to share my lessons learned from FOSS4G Calgary 2020. I think that the experience with Calgary should be a strong call to action to evaluate FOSS4G from the ground-up and look at ways that OSGeo and the community can build out a successful conference for the next decade. 
> 
> ========= Intro =========
> 2020 will forever be known as the year that COVID19 changed the way that we live, work, and interact. This global pandemic has led to millions of infections, thousands of deaths, and affected every single person on the planet. 
> 2020 was also supposed to be the year that Calgary hosted the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) event, a global event that we subsequently canceled due to the ongoing pandemic. 
> 
> In the interest of openness and transparency I am sharing with everyone the lessons I have learned along the way and my opinions on how to better the FOSS process. I want to be clear that these are my personal thoughts and opinions and may not be shared by others on the Calgary local organizing committee (LOC). 
> 
> == Context: Fast facts about FOSS4G 2020 == 
> - Planning Time: 2 years (Oct 2018 to Aug 2020)
> - Target Attendance: 1,200 to 1,500 people 
> -- Break even attendance: 800 people 
> - Total conference budget: $1M+
> - Actual Financial Loss: ~$62k CAD (~$48k USD) 
> 
> ========= The growing pains of a Global FOSS4G =========
> I wasn’t there where FOSS4G started out, but like most things it started small. In 2002 (https://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/FOSS4G) there were 140 people gathering in Italy to discuss GRASS GIS. By 2006 it was officially named FOSS4G and 560 people attended in Switzerland. Organizing an early FOSS4G would have taken months of work, money for venues, and lots of thought. The events were grassroots and probably felt like you were getting together with your close friends for a few days of conversation. 
> 
> By contrast, the 2020 Calgary LOC started planning 2 years in advance, with a budget over $1M, and a target of 1,500 attendees from around the world. 
> As a co-chair for the 2020 conference I feel that the bidding and engagement process is still rooted in the idea that this a small, grassroots event that can be done off the side of one’s desk. 
> 
> The reality is that FOSS4G has now reached the point where it is a major yearly global event that comes with a planning cycle >1 year. This means it also comes with a major budget, cash flow management challenges, and major risks. 
> 
> == Recommendation: ===
> - OSGeo should recognize that FOSS4G is a major global event and update the thinking, processes, and treatment of it to match. 
> 
> ========= Long Term Thinking vs Build-and-burn =========
> Each year FOSS4G is hosted by a new LOC, in a new location. The upside of this is that the community can engage new people, including people who would not have the means or opportunity to travel internationally. 
> 
> The downside is that each year a new LOC must build a FOSS4G from the ground up. I can’t name any other global event with 1,000+ attendees that starts over each year. By starting over, we lose knowledge, relationships, and the long-term vision for FOSS4G. 
> Building new relationships with potential sponsors each year means that neither the sponsor, nor the LOC, can get the best deal. Since regional FOSS4G events are also running each year we all end up competing for limited sponsor dollars. If there was coordination and planning, then the regional and global events could work together to build better packages for sponsors and approach with one ask instead of multiple. With long-term thinking perhaps sponsors may be interested in long-term agreements to sponsor a range of events or activities with clear goals and benefits. 
> 
> This lack of continuity means that there is no long-term vision or strategy for FOSS4G, and LOCs can effectively build an event to their own parameters or choosing. If unchecked FOSS4G could drift radically from the intentions of the community, and risk ruining the reputation of this successful and long-running event. 
> 
> As I understand it, the main source of funding for OSGeo is some portion of the profits from FOSS4G which are donated by the LOC back to OSGeo. This assumes that the LOC a) chooses to make a profit on their event, and b) is able to make a profit on their event. Sponsor relationships are delicate and need to be maintained over time so that both parties can benefit. The Calgary LOC needed to raise $271,000 in sponsorship to host a successful FOSS4G. This is substantial amount of money to ask for, especially when you need to build these relationships from the ground up, and we were fortunate that many sponsors were willing to come on board (and as a show of good faith we are fully refunding them). Fundraising is a time consuming effort and could be greatly improved if these relationships were maintained by one or two individuals year to year. 
> 
> == Recommendations: ==
> -	OSGeo needs a clear long-term vision for FOSS4G, and should expect each year’s event to build on this vision 
> -	OSGeo should employ a part- or full-time person to work with LOCs for all regional and larger events. This person would hold the vision, maintain sponsor relationships, and provide continuity on learnings from year to year 
> 
> ========= Conference Bidding: A Game of Contradictory Desires =========
> The bidding process to host a FOSS4G comes with opposing pressures to:
> 1. Keep ticket prices as low as possible, boosting the openness and accessibility of the event 
> 2. Make as much profit as possible, boosting the amount returned to OSGeo 
> 
> OSGeo and the community need to decide which priority is the most important. Does OSGeo want an event that maximizes accessibility, or profit? Neither is a wrong choice, however each choice will lead to a different type of event. LOCs can’t be expected to win the bid on low price, and then return a huge profit to OSGeo. From past conversations on the conf_dev list I would suggest that profitability is a higher interest than many people would be willing to admit, especially if OSGeo depends on the surplus each year to fund operations. 
> 
> == Recommendation: ==
> - OSGeo should have a clear priority or target for balancing profits and accessibility 
> 
> 
> ========= On Risk and Expectations =========
> Winning the right to host FOSS4G comes with a “gentleman’s agreement” handshake deal of implied benefits and conditions. The benefits are that you are the one and only group hosting the global event, that you have the support of the community, and the ability to access seed funding through OSGeo. The conditions are that you need to donate some percentage of the profits (if any) back to OSGeo at the conclusion of the event, and that you hold most of the risk. 
> The primary risks when hosting a conference are the contracts with the venue, the hotels, and other vendors and suppliers. Many of these agreements have minimum amounts that rachet up as you approach the event, and canceling an event <6 months out means that the minimums add up to over $250k+
> 
> The challenge with all of these benefits and conditions is that none of this is codified in a written agreement. 
> 
> == Recommendation: == 
> - OSGeo needs to create a written agreement between themselves and the winning LOC that clearly outlines the sharing of profit and risk 
> - OSGeo needs to recognize that LOCs are taking on major financial risks to host these events, and these risks will grow as the event grows 
> 
> ========= Centralization vs Decentralized =========
> I recognize that these recommendations create tension between a centralized and decentralized approach. This may be uncomfortable for some readers as the decentralized approach has been the standard way. In these recommendations I am suggesting that OSGeo and the community could benefit by centralizing the core and critical aspects of FOSS4G so that each year's event would not need to start from the ground up. This does not mean elimination of LOCs or engaging the wider community in building a shared experience, indeed, being able to access a large community of engaged participants is a strength. 
> 
> 
> ========= Conclusion =========
> I am grateful to the FOSS4G community, and to the past FOSS4G Chairs for the wisdom, knowledge, and help that they provided along the way. I am obviously disappointed and frustrated that we cannot host the event we have been working on for the past two years, and I am sad that we will not be able to have the wonderful FOSS4G community here in Calgary. 
> 
> Through this experience I have met incredible people, learned a few hard lessons, and remain an enthusiastic supporter of open geospatial technology. I hope that OSGeo and the entire community can learn from our experience and make the necessary changes to strengthen and improve future FOSS4G events. 
> 
> I also want to thank and recognize the OSGeo Board for reimbursing the Calgary LOC for 95% of the financial losses we incurred. This is a tremendous show of support during a difficult and unpredictable time, and I very much appreciate it. 
> 
> Thanks,
> Jon
> 
> ========= TL;DR =========
> FOSS4G has evolved from a grassroots get together into a major international event and it's time to evolve the thinking about FOSS4G. 
> It would benefit the community to increase continuity between events and move away from a build-and-burn mentality 
> 
> 
> ========= Summary of Recommendations =========
> All my recommendations in one place 
> Recommendation: 
> - OSGeo should recognize that FOSS4G is a major global event and update the thinking, processes, and treatment of it to match. 
> - OSGeo needs a clear long-term vision for FOSS4G, and should expect each year’s event to build on this vision 
> - OSGeo should employ a part- or full-time person to work with LOCs for all regional and larger events. This person would hold the vision, maintain sponsor relationships, and provide continuity on learnings from year to year 
> - OSGeo should have a clear priority or target for balancing profits and accessibility 
> - OSGeo needs to create a written agreement between themselves and the winning LOC that clearly outlines the sharing of profit and risk 
> - OSGeo needs to recognize that LOCs are taking on major financial risks to host these events, and these risks will grow as the event grows 
> 
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